Chris Rattue

Chris Rattue is a sports columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

The man apart in the Australian Rugby World Cup pack

David Pocock - nicknamed Bam Bam - is one of the few quality turnover specialists in world rugby. Photo / Mark Mitchell
David Pocock - nicknamed Bam Bam - is one of the few quality turnover specialists in world rugby. Photo / Mark Mitchell

Vast test rugby experience arrives remarkably quickly these days and at just 23, David Pocock - the brilliant Wallaby flanker - has already built a career that would have labelled him a veteran a couple of decades ago.

Tomorrow night will be the biggest game of his young life, when he faces the Springbok pack in the World Cup quarter-final at Wellington's Cake Tin stadium, and with so much resting on his powerful shoulders.

Having missed the defeat against Ireland because of a back injury, Pocock is the key to reinvigorating the Wallaby pack. Indeed, evidence is already building that Australia are overly reliant on his presence, to a point that shock losses only seem to occur when he is absent.

As one of the few quality turnover specialists in world rugby, his ability to zero in on opposition ball is priceless, especially with attacking teams having the advantage under the revamped laws.

The quarter-final will be poignant for him, a World Cup showdown against the team he revered as a kid growing up in Zimbabwe where he religiously watched the Springbok games on television.

His is a rare story, although not a unique one in a distressingly troubled world, a kid from a family which fled violence and despair who is emerging as a sporting star in his adopted country.

Pocock arrived on the world rugby stage out of the Brisbane rugby system, alongside Quade Cooper and Will Genia.

Already he has 36 tests on the board, despite having emerged when George Smith was still operating. The combative Smith was a true legend, but the Australian coach Robbie Deans saw something special in Pocock, and the baton was passed on quicker than many anticipated.

The Pocock family - Andy, Jane and their three boys - escaped Robert Mugabe's Zimbabwe in 2002.

Sitting in the lobby of the Wallabies' downtown Wellington hotel, Pocock recalls his life in a measured and cautious way. He feels fortunate and doesn't want his family portrayed as having had too rough a time of it.

"In comparison to what many people have been through, and continue to go through, we are amongst the luckiest families and I consider myself to have had a very privileged upbringing growing up in Africa," he says.

Pocock was born in South Africa but only on a technicality, the nearest hospital was just across the border. He was brought up in Gweru, Zimbabwe, on a family farm that produced flowers for export, and cash crops such as tomatoes.

Around 2000, Pocock's parents got the almost inevitable Government order, stating their land and equipment would be acquired under the Mugabe land grab.

This so-called reform project targeted white farmers and the President's enemies, and lawless gangs sometimes did the work in incredibly violent ways. Pocock avoids detailing the exact nature of the security precautions his family took, except to say his father built a gate to shield the sleeping area.

When a neighbour was shot dead and his son hit by eight bullets, the family moved to a nearby town.

Pocock says: "It was not as traumatic as some people had it, but still scary. I guess from my point of view, a lot of the attention is on white farmers yet we had about 1000 people living with us on the farm, about 100 of them being workers.

"They all lost their jobs and a lot were beaten up just because they worked for white people. They were seen as the enemy as well.

"There was so much unrest, even in cities - riots, huge fuel shortages, food shortages, no bread. It all just started to collapse."

The Pococks arrived in Brisbane nearly a decade ago with few possessions and no funds. Andy Pocock worked all sorts of jobs - from being a gardener to a factory worker - until finding a new career in the childcare industry. A grandfather with money in South Africa assisted with the boys' school fees.

One of Pocock's two younger brothers suffered post-traumatic stress problems, while David flung himself into sport, especially rugby and water polo at which he also excelled.

"My youngest brother really struggled and it was quite tough on the family arriving in a new place the way we did. Sport was the way I dealt with it. I tried just about everything, but rugby had always been my favourite - sport was compulsory at our school in Zimbabwe," he says.

At Brisbane's Anglican Church Grammar School, he played at inside centre, outside Cooper. He was switched to the forwards during an under-16 representative two-day trial. Genia and New South Wales' Kurtley Beale were among the other booming Australian prospects he played with or against from his mid-teens.

Success, accolades and universal respect have tracked his career. He was in the 2005 national schoolboys side, captained the Australian under-20s at a World Cup, and could have played for his Perth-based Western Force in Super rugby as a 17-year-old but for age restrictions.

In one of the more aptly descriptive rugby nicknames, Pocock is known as Bam Bam, his squat, powerful physique reminiscent of the super-strong cartoon baby from the Flintstones.

He is said to have a major influence within the Wallabies, with players looking to the young forward for opinions at team meetings.

His commitment to the cause is such that in his early test career officials would delay taking him to the post-match press conference because he was emotionally and physically spent. Tears of utter frustration have been seen on his cheeks after galling defeats.

There is a certain depth of sincerity to Pocock which people gravitate to, and also characteristics that probably set him apart from the pack, or at least the stereotypical pack.

For starters, there is his dedication to gay rights and other social and political issues. When he and partner Emma, an Australian, married last December, they used the opportunity to support their gay-marriage beliefs.

Pocock says: "I don't see what the big deal is with the whole gay marriage debate in Australia.

"Being brought up in a Christian home and still identifying as Christian, I get pretty annoyed with the Christian lobbies around the world who say gay marriage destroys the family and all that kind of rubbish.

"They claim to follow someone who always stood up for the oppressed and marginalised.

"I guess it is a fear of the unknown - if you talk to someone who doesn't like gay people you can almost guarantee that they don't know too many.

"These are the prejudices that you have to challenge and break down. Emma and I decided not to get legally married until our gay friends could do the same."

He is also dedicated to the fair trade movement.

"I'm really passionate about challenging people in the First World to think more about the way they consume things," he says.

"For example, kids working in the Ivory Coast rather than going to school, and being sold to slavery, seem like very distant things to us when we pick up a chocolate bar. Few people make the connection.

"We need to buy products produced in a way that everyone involved gets a fair share."

He helped start a project named Eightytwenty Vision, which funds and promotes self-help and solutions in Nkayi, a town in Zimbabwe. On a website where Pocock was asked about his favourite books, he extols "Jungian thought".

This single mindedness is among the traits that will one day make him a Wallaby captain, and a very interesting one, you suspect. His journey from the madness of Zimbabwe to gladness in Australia might drive these passions for justice.

"Knowing how a vast majority of the world live, I have a real appreciation of how good things are in Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the developed nations around the world," he says.

"I am also very thankful to our parents for moving us here - it is much harder for the older generation to leave everything they have worked for behind like that."

Pocock loves returning to Zimbabwe, where he goes bush - "it's great getting away from all the modern gadgets" - and hangs out with cousins.

"Representing your country is a huge honour, something you put a huge effort into for a very long time," Pocock says.

"To actually do it with guys you've been playing with since you were 16 is pretty special.

"To see how they've progressed and the effort they've put in, to stand there together singing the anthem, it is very satisfying."

- NZ Herald

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